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  • Writer's pictureAnnelisa MacBean

Working with Shadow

It is very challenging to work with shadow on our own as, by definition, shadow is difficult to perceive. If we were able to see it clearly, it would not be shadow, but something else. Usually, Another . . . or an “Other” . . . is required to reflect shadow back to us. The “Other” can be a person in the role of partner, friend, family member, Sunday driver . . . an image, an inner vision or figure, a color, the forest, the stars, an animal-friend. The Other is all around us, always and forever available to reflect our lightness and our darkness and remind us of the truth of what we are.

Even though “shadow work” is given lip service periodically, the actual work itself is not very popular, which is understandable. It is difficult, painful, and humbling, and requires substantial ego-strength. A base-level capacity for self-resourcing in one’s neural net is required to engage in uncovering the shadow, otherwise it could overwhelm a more fragile self-structure. Shadow work requires the willingness to enter our own unacknowledged narcissism, unmet grief, undigested pain, unmetabolized self-absorption, and the entirety of our unlived lives. Shadow work asks us to let go of the fantasy that we “don’t have a shadow” or that we’ve “completed” some mythical journey where the unconscious is no longer operative. How many spiritual teachers have you seen take a nosedive when their unmet shadow undermines their imagined sense of themselves? Those hidden parts of ourselves, emotions, impulses, and beliefs that we’re not able to access, articulate, and integrate don’t just go away because they’ve fallen out of awareness. They will find their way back, especially in relationship with those that we’ve allowed to matter to us . . . our partners and spouses, our children and extended families. We find this shadowed material in another person or out in the world, evoking it in them, projecting it onto them, enacting it within the relational field… locating it outside ourselves so that we can be in relationship with it at a safe distance. Unknowingly, we long for reunion with these denied parts and pieces of ourselves, but we resist direct contact . . . instinctively we sense the house of cards that is our exclusive, preferred identity, could tumble. As with most processes that ask us to reorder or revise our relationship to self, leaning into the nervous system of an adult who can support and contain our early attempts to make contact with the shadow is a good idea. Too much too soon, without resources and reflection can backfire, unleashing the shadow like a live wire without ground.

Tending to this material, to our projections and judgments about the Other, with curiosity, consciousness, and compassion is the activity of love, work that we do not just for ourselves, but for all life, everywhere. For the ancestors and the ones yet to come. For the stars, the trees, the oceans, and for the earth herself, we turn toward the shadow and say, “OK . . . come.”

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